CANMORE, Alberta — It’s not always the ability to break through that builds the bridge to betterment, but the recognition that a breakthrough is possible.
That’s what the U.S. women realized as each consecutive athlete — rookies and veterans alike — concluded the final stage of the Ski Tour Canada (STC) with the women’s 10-kilometer classic pursuit on Saturday.
“My personal highlight is watching athletes who have never been in the points, like Katharine Ogden and Chelsea Holmes, ski their way in there,” said U.S. Ski Team (USST) Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said after the race.
Six American women scored World Cup points on Saturday, according to their actual time on course. World Cup regulars, Jessie Diggins led the team with the third-fastest time, Sadie Bjornsen skied 12th fastest and Rosie Brennan was 14th fastest. A first-year member of the USST D-team, 18-year-old Ogden (Stratton Mountain School) posted the 15th-fastest time, Holmes (Alaska Pacific University) had the 28th-fastest time, Caitlin Gregg (USST/Team Gregg) nabbed the 29th-fastest time.
“It almost brings tears to my eyes because it is the bridge to Jessie Diggins,” Whitcomb said. “A club athlete has a hard time picturing themselves skiing as fast as Jessie Diggins, but they perhaps can picture themselves skiing as fast as someone whose in the top five in a SuperTour and then suddenly they work their way into the points.”
For Whitcomb and the U.S. women, the final stage of the STC marks a watershed moment for future performances like those of Diggins.
While Diggins has strung together a solid STC — including her fifth-place finish the 10 k classic pursuit on Saturday for fifth overall in the Tour — and has often led the women’s team during the season, she considers herself just another beat to the American melody.
“I don’t feel like you can point to one person as leading the team because we’re all a piece of the puzzle,” Diggins said afterward. “We need everyone together to make it work. So I don’t see myself as leading the team, I see myself as being the team cheerleader. And that’s my role and I’m really proud to be in that role.”
“I don’t see myself as leading the team, I see myself as being the team cheerleader … I’m really proud to be in that role.” — Jessie Diggins, top U.S. woman in fifth overall in 2016 Ski Tour Canada
For the 24-year-old native of Afton, Minn., true leadership comes in all forms. Even though she toed the start line of Saturday’s race nervous and with a sore throat, she treated the eighth race day of the Tour just like any other: smiles and skis set to go.
“I was definitely feeling a lot of pressure coming into today,” Diggins said. “I knew Krista [Parmakoski of Finland] was going to catch me so I just thought, ski with her, we would trade leads, we’d try to hopefully make up time together and then hopefully hang on.”
Starting seven seconds behind Diggins, Parmakoski caught Diggins on the second of three laps and the two remained together by the final climb before looping back into the stadium. Diggins latched onto the Parmakoski, and both overtook Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen as they headed through the stadium around 6.6 k to start their final lap.
“I actually had no idea,” Diggins said of catching Jacobsen, who started fourth, 1:22 ahead of Diggins. “I was just trying to stay with Krista.”
Parmakoski pulled Diggins through their final lap together, crossing in fourth and fifth respectively. Parmakoski had the fastest time of the day in 33:41.8. Diggins finished with the third-fastest time, 18.9 seconds off of Parmakoski and 18.3 seconds behind Norway’s Therese Johaug, who posted the second-fastest time en route to the overall victory.
“To have an athlete in the top five after eight stages is truly a remarkable result that we are very proud of and I know Jessie is too,” Whitcomb said of Diggins. “I’m very encouraged with the way this tour ended.”
With three in the overall top 30 for Saturday’s pursuit and six in the top 30 for the fastest course times, the Americans have plenty to be encouraged by coming off of the Tour.
“I mean it makes me believe that I have the fitness and the strength to do this,” Brennan said after finishing the Tour in 24th overall. “I’m happy to feel like I have the fitness to compete on the circuit and hopefully move up as I learn little things here and there.”
Brennan who started in the pursuit in a wave with 11th through 50th place, 6:30 behind the leader, Norway’s Heidi Weng, skied behind Bjornsen — who led the massive wave out in 11th — during the first lap.
Heading into the major first climb of the second lap, Brennan moved the front and drew a few athletes, including Bjornsen up the hill past Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla.
“I was feeling good and I looked up and I saw Kalla up there and so I just thought, if I go next to Sadie she’s going to start going,” Brennan said. “We caught Kalla and I think that hopefully gave Sadie a little extra to fight for.”
Buttressing the USST women’s belief in themselves is their belief in their teammates and team.
“We’re teammates,” Brennan said. “I just thought if I can give her a little bit then that’s going to be worth a lot for us.”
And Bjornsen? The help from Brennan was crucial as she finished 11th in the Tour. Kalla finished less than a second back in 12th.
“I was working hard every uphill,” Bjornsen said “Everyone is so tired right now. It’s just a matter of using your brain, it’s not about your muscles anymore.”
The rest of the women remained grateful to finish the Tour and World Cup season on a high note.
“I love this,” Gregg said after. “I love the suffering, I love the victories, I love every part of it. It’s a complicated puzzle, in a way, to have everything align. You have so much respect for the athletes who do it day in and day out on the top of the podium and the you get a podium yourself and you really start to appreciate how fortunate we are just to be doing this.”
“It’s a complicated puzzle, in a way, to have everything align.” — Caitlin Gregg, 33rd in the overall Ski Tour Canada and 29th on the day in Saturday’s 10 k classic pursuit
Holmes, who finished in 31st overall on Saturday, echoed Gregg’s sentiment.
“I’ve learned more in the last two weeks of racing then I could have hope to do in a year,” 29-year-old Holmes said. “I feel very grateful that I’ve had this opportunity.”
Also competing for the U.S. women’s squad in the 10 k pursuit was Ida Sargent in 34th overall, Ogden in 36th, Kaitlynn Miller in 41st, Anne Hart in 43rd, and Jennie Bender in 48th.
Johaug Achieves Season Dream, with STC Overall and Two Crystal Globes
When Norway’s Therese Johaug wins, she wants it to count.
After starting 30 seconds behind the tour leader, Weng, Johaug cranked out the first 3 k and caught onto the back of Weng by the final climb before lapping in the stadium.
As the pair double poled through the stadium and back into the lap’s first major climb, Johaug ratcheted past Weng to reclaim the lead for good.
“For me, I think this victory is bigger than the Tour de Ski because I not have a hill in the end here,” Johaug said during an in-person interview, referring to the final hill climb of the annual the Tour de Ski in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Johaug finished in the STC pursuit in 34:12.4, more than a minute ahead of Weng, who placed second (+1:07.8), yet 0.6 seconds behind fastest course time of the day set by Parmakoski in fourth.
With her final victory, Johaug managed to accomplish in a season what no other woman has before: 17 individual World Cup wins as well as the Overall and Distance World Cup crowns. This is her second overall World Cup Crystal Globe.
“The whole season has been a dream,” Johaug told NRK. “It’s a bit sad that the season is over, even if it is good.”
Finishing the day in second place and second overall in the STC, was the previous tour leader, Weng.
“I’m pretty disappointed,” Weng said, according to a Langrenn press release. “It was incredibly hard to ski today.”
Completing the all-Norwegian podium was Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in third (+2:13.3).
“This was a battle from start to finish,” Østberg told Langrenn, after starting 1:25 behind in third. “I’m just happy to reach the finish and clear third place.”
–Jason Albert and Gerry Furseth contributed
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.